Despite their commitment to the environment, several Palo Alto City Council members said Monday night that the city doesn't necessarily need a new permanent "Environmental Commission."
But the council, swept up in an evening dedicated to green themes reflecting Earth Day on Sunday, voted 5-3 to explore the idea of a new commission to monitor the city's environmental and anti-climate-change efforts.
Councilwoman Judy Kleinberg called the commission "in principal a nifty idea, surely great. Palo Alto ought to have one."
But it's not that simple, she said. The idea has been proposed before, she noted, and many environmental issues such as land use are already covered by existing city commissions. Kleinberg, along with council members Dena Mossar and Jack Morton, opposed the referral motion to the council's Policy & Services Committee, which will consider the matter within a few weeks. Councilman Bern Beecham was absent.
Councilman Peter Drekmeier expressed strong doubts about the commission, but switched his position in the final vote to keep it alive.
The proposal -- initially voiced by Mayor Yoriko Kishimoto during her State of the City speech last month -- capped an evening dedicated to the environment.
An Environmental Commission would codify the city's commitment to the environment and help communicate issues to the public, a colleagues' memo authored by Kishimoto, Drekmeier and Vice Mayor Larry Klein said.
"Our vision for this (commission) is to tap into the (community) energy," Drekmeier said.
"When people really start thinking about how to save energy, there are a lot of ideas out there," Klein said.
The seven-member commission would be crafted so it wouldn't overlap with the city's existing commissions. Therefore, it would have limited ability to cover land use (Planning and Transportation), open space (Parks and Recreation) or energy policies (Utilities).
The memo also called for the appointment of a staff person to support the activities of the commission.
"I don't think there's any doubt that all of us sitting here tonight love the planet Earth," Councilwoman Dena Mossar. Nonetheless, the city isn't in a position to add staff positions, she said.
Mossar said she was also concerned about the committee's jurisdiction, which would have to be crafted around existing commissions.
She also cited the city's current struggles to attract commissioners and said she wouldn't want all the "environmentalists" clustered on the Environmental Commission.
City Manager Frank Benest said he supported the plan because climate change is a council priority.
"Normally I'm hesitant about adding another commission," he said. Benest said he understands the goal of creating a new staff position and also had initial concerns about the commission's jurisdiction.
Mossar and Kleinberg said they supported exploring the creation of an "environmental coordinator" staff position whether or not a commission is created.
Their proposal gained the unanimous support of the council. City staff will evaluate the creation of the position and present the material to the council, Kleinberg said.
The evening began with an update on effects of climate change on the city and its energy supplies <0x2014> predictions Councilman John Barton called a "very interesting, very helpful and a little scary"
Climate change is expected to drastically reduce snowfall in the Sierra Nevada and cause more precipitation to fall as rain, Energy Risk Manager Karl Van Orsdol said.
That will significantly reduce the usefulness and predictability of hydropower, which currently provides about 50 percent of the city's energy, Van Orsdol said.
Hydropower is particularly important in the summer, as Sierra reservoirs are replenished with snowmelt and costs of other types of energy climb. But increased rainfall instead of snow will cause winter and spring flooding and won't be reliably available at the optimal May to September period, Van Orsdol said.
Increased risk is another effect of climate change, especially as Palo Alto moves away from large traditional sources of power, Van Orsdol said.
The Utilities Department has occasionally waived its current good credit rating requirement to contract with small, renewable producers, he said.
The waiver is a tradeoff, however, because the city incurs more risk if the energy producer fails to live up to its contract, he said.
The city can mitigate the risk by diversifying its power supply, he said.
Another risk of long-term climate change to Palo Alto is from flooding and storm swells, he said.
By 2100, the sea level is expected to rise from one to three feet, which would inundate much of southeastern Palo Alto. Extreme storms are also predicted to become more likely, making floods a regular occurrence, he said.
The city is just beginning to develop plans to address the water-level changes, Van Orsdol said.
Several council members emphasized the importance of encouraging local solar power production. Senior Resource Planner Karl Knapp said the city's solar-incentive budget will increase dramatically next year.
And, of course, reducing energy use would help, both Knapp and Van Orsdol said.
"Efficiency is not in our light bulbs, (it's) in our heads," Van Orsdol said.
The city staff also reported on progress toward meeting the recommendations of the Green Ribbon Task Force, made up of dozens of community members who presented the city with tasks to combat global warming in December.
A complete climate-protection plan is expected by November, Knapp said.
The group's numerous recommendations are available at www.city.palo-alto.ca.us/greenribbon/index.html.
The council also touched on other green issues, including:
* Creating an "urban forest" plan
* Increasing the focus on salvaging and reusing construction materials
* Emphasizing green building standards and possibly mandating them in several years
* Introducing a trial compost program for florists and nurseries.
(Staff Writer Becky Trout can be e-mailed at firstname.lastname@example.org.)